How do you find your voice as an African travel writer? That’s the question I attempted to answer at a recent seminar in Birmingham, England.
I was recently invited to be part of a wonderful and insightful seminar called “African Travel Writing Encounters” by the University of Birmingham’s Department of African Studies and Anthropology. It was supported by the European Research Council and the “Knowing Each Other” Nigeria project with professors and PhD students presenting in-depth research papers on turn-of-the-century African Travel Writers as well as modern African travel writing voices like myself, Pelu Awofeso, Humphrey Nkonde, and work by Noo Saro-Wiwa.
So I wanted to share my presentation because there have been a lot of things on my mind since I started working fulltime as a professional travel writer and photographer in this space.
Here was my presentation.
Synopsis – The world of travel writing is still predominantly white and male and when travel writers of color share their voices, those voices are often boxed up, marginalized, or made to fit a certain theme or demographic.
My talk drew on my own personal experiences and addressed what a lot of travel writers of color struggle with -> “If I don’t focus solely on the black experience or write mostly about Africa as an African travel writer, am I selling out?”
There were three questions I really wanted to address in my presentation:
- How do you find your voice as an African travel writer?
- How do you expand as an African travel writer to write about a variety of destinations and travel-related topics with authority?
- If I don’t focus on the black experience or write mostly about Africa as an African travel writer, am I selling out?”
A couple years ago, there was a competition held by Quark Expeditions. They were celebrating, I believe, their 20th anniversary as polar expedition specialists and were organizing a competition to take a writer to the North Pole. Someone who would blog about their experiences. This also happened to be one of those voting competitions (which I have now vowed never to enter again).
The North Pole.
So I entered the competition and for two months, I campaigned all across social media to secure thousands of votes to put me in the running.
During this endeavor, I was met with the question, “Why?”
Friends who couldn’t comprehend why I wanted to go to the North Pole didn’t cast their votes. They would understand if I said I wanted to go somewhere warm and tropical, somewhere closer to my roots.
By the end, I missed the opportunity by only three votes. Their votes.
Then the realization hit me.
As an African travel writer, I had already been put in a box – both by strangers and friends. Writing about the North Pole was supposed to be uncharted waters for me.
Since that day, it has become my mission to say “Why not?”
I was born in Nigeria and moved to the US when I was 15 years old to start college. I studied to be a computer programmer and both my degrees are in Information Systems.
Geography has always been my passion and I knew deep down in my heart I was born to explore the world and share those experiences through imagery and words.
But my dreams were considered audacious at the time. Even when I started down the path that would take me to working as a travel writer and photographer, even my mom at the time (now my biggest advocate) kept reminding me to, “Tell them you have a degree o!”
Growing up in Lagos, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would one day be represented by National Geographic Creative or even contribute to the brand. Since then, I’ve contributed to several high profile travel publications writing about a variety of cultural topics.
How do you find your voice as an African travel writer?
I found my own voice through listening. Truly listening.
When I moved to the US, the culture I met wanted to marginalize me and define me. It wanted to put me in a predefined box of expectations and limitations. People weren’t truly listening to what I had to share about myself and my culture. So I made it my mission – through words and photography – to share untold stories and to always depict people with dignity through my photography.
You define your voice by passionately pursuing subject matters and topics that are naturally of interest to you.
For me, I explore culture through food, tradition, and everyday lifestyles. Whether it’s back home in Nigeria or up in Swedish Lapland.
Today, I’ve explored roughly 60 countries, maybe more. But I don’t count anymore because it’s not a mad dash across the globe.
Because for me, travel is about truly pausing to listen.
How do you expand as an African travel writer to write about a variety of destinations and travel-related topics with authority?
The mainstream perception is that if I have an African voice, then I’m mostly writing about African experiences. Even Africans who’ve been in the diaspora for decades tend to find more “success” as an African travel writer if they come back and write about “home”.
But the main crux of the experience for me is:
- How do I navigate the world as a whole as an African?
- What makes my point of view unique on a mainstream level?
Quality of work improves when you’re passionately pursuing subject matters and topics that are naturally of interest to you.
To reiterate, I explore culture through food, tradition, and everyday lifestyles, and as an African travel writer, I focus on these very same themes across different cultures and countries.
You begin to write with authority when you define niches you’re truly interested in and explore them in depth.
If I don’t focus solely on the black experience or write mostly about Africa as an African travel writer, am I selling out?
I used my fellow African travel writer Pelu who was also presenting at the seminar as an example.
Pelu currently lives in Nigeria and has explored every inch of the country.
I currently live in Sweden and I have explored it from corner to corner
Pelu knows Nigeria like the back of his hand.
I know Sweden like the back of my hand.
Because it is my home right now.
We’re both doing what good travel writers should do – we explore in depth and capture a sense of place through our work.
Regardless of location.
Travel writing is all about exploration of “place”. Travel writers give you a sense of place through their words.
I haven’t fully lived in Nigeria since I was 15 years old. Even though over the last decade, I try to visit at least once every year.
So it would be disingenuous for me to write like a local day-to-day expert about a place I haven’t actively lived in for over 22 years, even though I can consider myself an insider because I know the culture very well. I can focus on specific stories, angles, and cultural themes. I can travel on assignment, explore, and write based on on-the-ground encounters and experiences.
Like I would any other country or city I visit.
On the contrary, I write like a local day-to-day expert about Stockholm on my editorial site – Slow Travel Stockholm. Because it is my home right now.
For me, travel is about listening. Listening to those undertones of a culture. Whether I’m talking to Zainab who handcrafts bags in the heart of Lekki Market, Lagos, or going behind the scenes with Chef Johan of Restaurang Gabriel in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Travel is about being an open-minded sponge to not only soak up other cultures in respect, but to also squeeze some of myself and my culture out in return to foster understanding, break down bias, and break through prejudices.
So my mission as a travel writer continues to empathetically and emphatically answer, “WHY NOT?”
I still haven’t reached the North Pole yet. But for me, it’s only a matter of time.